Microsatellite instability (MI), the phenotypic manifestation of mismatch repair failure, is found in a proportion of gastric carcinomas. Little is known of the links between MI and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) status and clinicopathological elements. Examination of genes mutated through the MI mechanism could also be expected to reveal important information on the carcinogenic pathway. Seventy-nine gastric carcinomas (61 EBV negative, 18 EBV positive) from local Hong Kong Chinese population, an intermediate-incidence area, were examined. Eight microsatellite loci, inclusive of the A10 tract of type II transforming growth factor beta receptor (TbetaR-II), were used to evaluate the MI status. MI in the BAX and insulin-like growth factor II receptor (IGF-IIR) genes were also examined. High-level MI (>40% unstable loci) was detected in ten cases (12.7%) and low-level MI (1-40% unstable loci) in three (3.8%). High-level MI was detected in two EBV-associated cases (11%) and the incidence was similar for the EBV-negative cases (13%). The high-level MIs were significantly associated with intestinal-type tumours (P = 0.03) and a more prominent lymphoid infiltrate (P = 0.04). Similar associations were noted in the EBV-positive carcinomas. The high-level MIs were more commonly located in the antrum, whereas the EBV-associated carcinomas were mostly located in body. Thirteen cardia cases were negative for both high-level MI and EBV. All patients aged below 55 were MI negative (P = 0.049). Of the high-level MIs, 80% had mutation in TbetaR-II, 40% in BAX and 0% in IGF-IIR. Of low-level MIs, 33% also had TbetaR-II mutation. These mutations were absent in the MI-negative cases. Of three lymphoepithelioma-like carcinomas, two cases were EBV positive and MI negative, one case was EBV negative but with high-level MI. In conclusion, high-level MIs were present regardless of the EBV status, and were found in a particular clinicopathological subset of gastric carcinoma patient. Inactivation of important growth regulatory genes observed in these carcinomas confirms the importance of MI in carcinogenesis.